Master of Metal: Jay Donovan’s amazing Yamaha XS650

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
We’re suckers for beautiful metalwork, but a good set of technical upgrades is just as likely to grab our attention. And seeing both boxes ticked on one build is a rare treat.

This graceful Yamaha XS650 was built for the ‘Motorcycles as Art’ exhibition at this year’s Sturgis Buffalo Chip, curated by the renowned motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter. It’s the work of Jay Donovan—the 23-year-old sole proprietor of Baresteel Design in Victoria, BC, Canada.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
“I was very fortunate to be a part of it,” says Jay. “I contacted Michael in the months leading up to the show, wanting to know how to get involved and what the theme was.”

“After hearing that it would be based around up and coming builders, I knew I wanted to take part. He had enough faith to invite me to participate in the show—without much previous work to show and without a motorcycle even started.”

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
With only two and a half months until the deadline, Jay dragged a 1979 Yamaha XS650 into his small shop and knuckled down. Baresteel is a true one-man show, so Jay handled everything on the project aside from the plating, powder-coating and upholstery.

He also farmed the engine top-end rebuild off to a friend at Whiplash Customs, mainly because of the project’s tight deadline.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
From a design perspective, Jay wanted to heavily rework a stock Yamaha XS650—so heavily, that the final product would seem like it was entirely built from scratch.

“Much of the new frame and swingarm lines were inspired by the original platform,” he explains. “The body came from a desire for a very fluid but aggressive design. As the design developed it took on inspiration from a Giant Oceanic Manta Ray, hence the name ‘Manta’.”

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
To execute his vision, Jay rebuilt most of the rear of the chassis. The subframe is gone, replaced by a custom-made tail section, set at an angle parallel to the engine fins. It includes a new shock mount too; Jay ditched the stock twin shock arrangement and added in a 2008 Ducati Monster mono shock.

On the swingarm side, Jay started by removing the stock unit’s gusset and spacing the arms out to accept a wider rear tire. He then notched the dropouts and built in upper and lower support structures to finish off the mono-shock setup. He’s also converted it to use needle bearings, and added a hand-filed gusset for reinforcement.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
Every little detail has been seen to. Note how the new swingarm supports bend at the back to all run parallel, and how they’re all finished with matching end caps. The rest of the frame had its factory welds cleaned up, before everything was brushed and clear powder coated.

The new rear is matched to a set of 2002 Suzuki SV650 forks and brakes. The forks were lowered one and a half inches, and upgraded with Race Tech springs and emulators. Jay also shaved off the old fender mounts and polished everything up.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
The wheels were rebuilt on the Yamaha’s stock hubs with 17” rims from Excel. The hubs were also treated to a polish, and Jay laced and trued the wheels himself with stainless steel spokes and nipples. The tires are Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 high-performance radials.

Even though the XS650 hadn’t seen many miles, the engine got some attention too. As well as getting the top-end rebuild, the heads were re-machined, and everything but the cases was vapor-blasted.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
Updated components include a Boyer Bransen digital ignition, Mikuni VM34 round slide carbs and an XSCHARGE permanent magnet alternator. Jay’s also added three-inch velocity stacks, and a stunning custom-made exhaust system that snakes around the motor and terminates under the bike.

The wiring’s been redone around a Lithium-ion battery and Motogadget’s updated M-unit 2. Other Motogadget goodies include a wireless RFID key system, a mini gauge and LED turn signals. The headlight and taillight are LEDs too, with the latter integrated into the tail.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
Then there’s that stunning alloy bodywork. “The body was designed using the classic Italian coach building method of creating a wire form buck, then using it as a guide for shaping the metal,” explains Jay.

“The one piece aluminum tank and tail section, as well as the fairing, was all hand formed from a flat sheet of aluminum using traditional methods, and given a brushed finish.”

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
Moving to the cockpit, Jay installed Woodcraft clip-ons with a throttle housing, levers and brake master cylinder from Kustom Tech. The switches and grips are from Motogadget; the grips were machined down to to accommodate wrapped leather inserts.

The foot controls are modified Loaded Gun Customs rear sets, and include. Like the grips, the toe pegs were machined down and treated to some leather. The kick-start lever got the same treatment, all to match the leather on the new seat. And if you look closely, there’s even a leather battery bag hiding in front of the swing arm.

Yamaha XS650 custom by BareSteel Design
Jay also fabbed up a sneaky license plate bracket using the arm from a brass desk lamp. “It’s fully adjustable and designed to house wires, and its contours were even a great fit for the bike,” he says. “My fascination with shapes and proportion leads me to walking through thrift shops for interesting (and sometimes useful) items like that.”

The detailing is quite remarkable. Every bolt head is smoothed and slightly domed, and all the nuts have bee replaced with chromed acorn nuts. Every piece of hardware was either cadmium plated by Electrosine, polished, or chromed to show-quality standards. There’s also a little brass tastefully sprinkled throughout.


Jay managed to wrap it all just in time for the show, where he got some good news: the bike was selected to be shown off again at the upcoming Motor Bike Expo in Verona, Italy.

Hopefully he’ll find some time to ride it in between—because this art piece looks like it was also made to be thrashed.

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